Development initiatives often cite Water Users’ Associations (WUAs) as fundamental to water governance reform or the broad process of decentralizing responsibilities for management, supply and delivery. But the label of “WUA” indicates little about those who take on these duties as association members, suggesting all who use water in pursuit of life or livelihood are eligible to participate and benefit through collective action. Grounded in the belief that participatory projects can equitably empower and distribute resources, the enthusiastic introduction of WUAs continues despite critique that anticipated outcomes are overstated. Since borders opened to neoliberal development institutions in the 1990s, WUAs have been created throughout post-Soviet Central Asia. Yet, there has been limited reflection on how associations’ design and operation interact with physical or social structures to effect resource access across diverse groups. Drawing on fieldwork in Tajikistan, I demonstrate how WUAs reproduce exclusionary outcomes by requiring members to possess farmland in turn threatening rural food security. Held by a minority, farmland dedicated to commercial production stands in contrast to ubiquitous kitchen gardens, where crops sown for self-consumption form a buffer against hunger in the wake of labor migration and income inconsistency. Households’ inability to become members undermines their claim to water and voice in decision-making, ultimately constraining access to irrigation and a robust harvest.
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